An ethnic woman’s perspective on dating at HBS. This post was originally published on stilettomuse.wordpress.com, with media links.
“Wonder how it came to be
Things with me and you
How we lost the way to love
How we got so blue”
“And It’s Supposed to be Love”, Ayo
— Several HBS students so far on separate occasions
People in the outside world glamorize what it is like to be a 20-something in business school. They think it must be like ‘Sex and The City’: endless romantic options, a magic carpet-ride. Indeed, there are endless parties, but romantic options are far scarcer than anyone likes to admit. We glam up and go on nights out with jokes and aspirations of ‘getting lucky’. At the end of the night, we’re mostly in the same Uber heading back together.
What are the barriers, the hurdles, the reasons for this? I outline 7 main ones that I see below.
Dating is hard – why?
1. The numbers are not in your favor
Myth: “Going to business school with a partner is like going to a buffet with packed sandwiches”
Reality: “Going to business school single, is like going to a picnic where everyone brought their sandwiches, with no food”
The first thing to know about business school is that the average age is around 27 and that the majority of people are in relationships by this point. A lot of people are married, some have children and most are in long-term relationships. A student-led survey showed that approximately 70% of people are in relationships, although the number ‘feels’ even higher at times. Interestingly, “all the good ones are taken” seems to be a common view among both men and women who I spoke to.
2. The abundance of mistrust, disengagement & fear in our social networks
“I’ve been dropped by so many girls for not fitting their agenda, that I don’t even feel I owe them the truth any more”
— HBS guy
“It’s unbelievable how much mistrust there is in dating in America. I feel like I have to overcome a preconceived notion that I’m a douchebag when I meet a girl”
— European HBS guy on dating in the US
Poison is contagious, and there’s a lot of a poison in the dating/hooking-up/seeing circuits these days. Here’s how it starts: you start of cautiously optimistic. Then someone misleads/lies/mistreats/hurts you. Then you start expecting that others might do the same. So before they can do it to you, you do it to them, or you just avoid relationships altogether. This is one driver of the not-calling-back effect that is so prevalent these days – why pursue something when you fear it’ll end in humiliation or pain for yourself?
Where does some of this mistrust come from? I have heard numerous accusations from both genders.
“Girls would appreciate honesty. If you want just a hook-up, don’t pretend that you’re actually interested in me as a person”
Mistrust is compounded and perpetuated by the number of guys who actively mislead girls.
“If you don’t fit their agenda you get dropped from the calendar”
“Girls these days are too practical”
Guys complain that women don’t love them for them, but love them for various boxes they tick on their checklist…
3. Risk aversion – let’s not even try
“How much encouragement do guys need?!”
— HBS girl
Apparently a lot. In the age of Netflix, it seems that a considerable number of guys would rather binge-watch Netflix all day than actually arrange to meet another human in a romantic context. People are terrified of even asking someone out for an exploratory date for fear that even a request for one date may be seen as ‘you’re the love of my life, I want to marry you’ or may lead to entrapment in a relationship that might be less than ideal. Written out like this, you can see the ridiculousness of such fears.
The new paradigm shift that is occurring is that girls have to ask guys out. I know many couples where the woman took the initiative to make the relationship happen.
I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. But what does annoy me is that it is not reflected in our cultural lexicon. Wedding speeches or tales of how people met still feature fairy-tale-like stories of man wooing woman. Wooing?! Who does wooing any more?! “I begged her and then she finally agreed to marry me” Men still say. I’m listening thinking Oh come on, tell it like it is. She had to weave a whole net around you to get you to agree to marry.
In this new paradigm, women who were brought up with a preference for being pursued rather than pursuing (a rather large proportion of women) are disadvantaged.
4. High standards & emphasis on Physical Attractiveness above other characteristics
“The bar is simply too high”
-– HBS guy
It’s a well-observed phenomenon that even if one looks like Rowan Atkinson oneself, one wants to date Charlize Theron. This is particularly true at business school. Both men and women are guilty of it, myself included.
The other issue is that what is desirable is not necessarily what all girls want to work on. Not all women like dolling up, are particularly interested in fashion or want to spend an hour straightening their hair when they could be reading The Economist instead. Rather unfortunately, women are penalized for cultivating other areas of their life if they don’t look ‘well put-together’.
As a child, I was concerned only with the art-form, with being better at what I was doing, not worried about how I looked. Then it all changed of course when I became older and started receiving advice like:
‘You need to dress more feminine’
‘Get your nails done’
‘Put at least one bikini photo on Hinge’
Not only are superficial characteristics highly desired in women, but characteristics I admire in women like strength, resilience, intellectual smarts, critical thinking are actually considered undesirable by some men (not all men).
Some HBS men complain that HBS women are too ambitious, too aggressive and too uncompromising. They wouldn’t want to curb back their career for him. In the women’s circles, we exchange horror stories of women who counted too much on a relationship that didn’t last. An investment banker who left his eight-months pregnant wife following an affair with an intern. A man who left his wife and two toddler children with the explanation “This happened way too fast. I liked you but I wasn’t ready for the kids”. These are all women we know, who we hear of, and we don’t want to be these women. Moreover, more than our own financial security and emotional independence, women have dreams and real contributions to make to society. I don’t fault them for giving their career importance. It’d be a loss to the world if they didn’t.
So do I fault the HBS men who explicitly search yonder for women at other schools, at the Design School, at the Ed school, at the School of Public Health, and at other Boston schools for a woman who is ‘softer’? I think it’s misguided, not least because it’s a stupid suggestion to think that someone from the Ed School isn’t ambitious and doesn’t want to lead education reform, but also because the underlying thinking is a perpetuation of sexist and backward attitudes that have persisted for generations. That rather than have an intellectual equal who will challenge you and cause you to think, you’d rather have someone who is like “Omg you work in investment banking with all those numbers, I don’t even know exactly what you do because it’s so beyond me, you must be really smart, my rich and amazing husband, now let me worship you”.
5. Texting – the most ineffective way of communication with someone you’ve just met
Texting is BAD when you have just met someone, yet it continues to be one of the many stupid cultural practices we stick to because we hate talking to people we might want to date (weird, right?). Many a time, people have come to me with their text messages asking ‘What does this mean?’. I’ve gone to others to ask ‘What should I text back?’
The scope for misinterpretation and simply not conveying what you want is so high with text messages. I was complaining to a male friend ‘He texts back like the shortest replies ever. It’s so rude. It’s like he thinks I’m a disgusting creature he wants to minimize contact with’. My friend said ‘That’s your assumption. He also texts back straightaway which means he could be in the middle of a meeting but he still feels he needs to reply so he texts you a short text promptly’. With a text message, the difference between intention and impact can be high.
6. Biases against ethnic women
“Wow, we’re like irrelevant”
— Indian girlfriend in a club in the UK
“I’ve never felt so boring in my life. Am I really that boring?”
— Indian girl at HBS who recently moved over from India
Dating is especially hard for ethnic women living in Western societies, due to the cultural and aesthetic biases against non-white women. Most ethnic minority women know this, just from being us. We grew up on a diet of Disney and Hollywood movies watching ‘beautiful’ women that look nothing like us (though Thank God for Princess Jasmine and Pocohontas, right?). I sometimes wonder if other ethnic women notice this as much as me and admire their ability to just accept things as they are. For me, I’ll be honest, the older I’ve gotten the more exhausting it’s gotten that there are so few relatable Indian female characters in movies, books, TV.
OKCupid, an online dating site, has done some interesting research which has added data to this feeling of racial biases we intuitively knew.
As you can see, white people had the strongest preference for dating someone of their ethnicity, whilst other races were more open-minded to others.
There was also analysis of the response rates of different ethnic groups from others. The results have been summarized widely as:
Non-black men applied a penalty to black women
While black men showed little racial preference either way
All women preferred men of their own race
But they otherwise penalized both Asian and black men
As a writer on The Abstract Factory put it “although diversity of aesthetic preferences, including preference for racially marked features, may be a simple personal choice, systematic statistical skew in aesthetic preferences across a large population strongly indicates socialization to racially biased standards of attractiveness”
If you’re interested in the details, see the matrices below from OkCupid 2009 data. Green highlights a higher than average response rate, yellow a neutral/lower one and red a very low response rate relative to average. The numbers on the perimeter of the table are the weighted average rates for each column/row.
7. The culture of ‘casual’ & break-ups
“You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather’
-– Outkast, Ms Jackson
Break-ups are so prevalent these days that even if you ‘find’ someone, it’s in the back of your mind that this probably won’t last. And the readily available option of a break-up in the face of any difficult situation makes it all the more likely.
The footloose and global nature of our lives is another factor: we’re constantly moving geographies, and we don’t know where we’ll be in a few years from now.
This has led to an increasing prevalence of casual making out and casual sex, which disadvantages the people who don’t want to play that game. “You have to make the guy wait. Otherwise why would he invest in you or marry you” said a married woman to me. I was surprised how she could generalize what worked for her in small-town America to me, in Boston. The fact is I’ve been replaceable in all romantic interactions – and easily so – due to the ready availability of women willing to hook-up casually.
Women should completely own their own bodies and make their own decisions in pursuit of their own happiness, so no judgment when they do — but the real question is: how much of the hooking up is actually women doing what they want as a first-best option and how much is women being forced by systemic forces to hook up because of the dim possibility of the loving relationship they really want and have been denied for so long? I can’t help but wonder…Have women been liberated or are we just in a new renovated prison?
Closing thoughts: where from here?
“Who knows what the end will be?
It ain’t over yet”
— “It’s Supposed to be Love”, Ayo
In the end, the world is a big place. There are many dissatisfied couples who got married because it was the thing to do, but there are also many genuinely blissful couples.
Whilst it’s totally legitimate to search for romantic love, I don’t think we should make people feel inadequate or incomplete for not being in a relationship either. With our romance-obsessed society, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are so many types and sources of love in the world. As the ancient Greeks identified, in addition to eros (romantic & sexual love), there is phileo (friendships), storge (familial and affectionate love) and agape (spiritual love & charity). And I’d argue despite the glorification of romantic love, I don’t actually think it’s the ‘best’ type. The gold standard of love is when we think beyond ourselves for others and want absolutely nothing in return: agape.
As a society, we are changing. The single woman who won’t settle for second-best, and would rather be single than with Mr ‘someone-is-better-than-noone’, will need to become more accepted, because she’s here in the world in ever-increasing numbers. And we will have to shift our pie-chart of joy sources to allow greater emphasis on other sources of love, affection, renewal than just “the special” him or her.